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When soldiers have a change of heart

The documentary 'Sir! No Sir!' recalls how some Vietnam GIs opposed the war.

May 05, 2006|Kenneth Turan | Times Staff Writer

"Sir! No Sir!" is a powerful documentary that uncovers half-forgotten history, history that is still relevant but not in ways you might be expecting.

Written and directed by David Zeiger, "Sir! No Sir!" brings back to public consciousness the nervy and surprisingly pervasive GI antiwar movement that flourished during the Vietnam War, a movement that was more widespread than anyone wants to remember today.

Winner of the documentary audience award at the Los Angeles Independent Film Festival and a Spirit Award nominee, "Sir! No Sir!" doesn't mention the current war in Iraq, or for that matter, John Kerry, who was a prominent antiwar soldier. But then and now comparisons are inevitable.

Though not a veteran, director Zeiger was an organizer in that movement, and he has sought out and interviewed an exceptional group of idealistic men and women, articulate and strong-minded individuals who had the courage to act on their beliefs.

Without having to say it, "Sir! No Sir!" underscores what an engaged, activist group the people of the 1960s were. Even those who were conventional and patriotic enough to enlist in the armed services were so a part of that rambunctious generation that they could not stand still when they felt wrongs were being committed.

That spirit is noticeably lacking today, both inside and outside the military, where atrocities like Abu Ghraib didn't call forth anything like the reaction that the My Lai massacre did in its day.

The first armed services members to speak out were inevitably true believers, people who had bought the myth of what we were supposedly doing in Vietnam and took it especially hard when the reality kicked in. Most notable of these was Donald Duncan, a decorated Green Beret who left the military in 1966, after more than a year in Vietnam, so early there was "no movement to join." Duncan loved being a Green Beret but came to feel that "the problem I had was realizing that what I was doing was not good. I was doing it right, but I wasn't doing right."

From Duncan on, the antiwar soldiers could not make their peace with the cynical use of torture and the elimination of women, children and civilians in accordance with what one of them called a "kill them all, sort it out later" philosophy. Louis Font, who felt Vietnam was a war of aggression, became the first West Point graduate in history to refuse war service, and Dave Cline, wondering why a man he just killed was dead while Cline was alive, came to feel that continued silence was "part of keeping the lie going."

The soldiers' antiwar movement soon spawned off-base coffeehouses in military towns, such as the Oleo Strut outside Ft. Hood, Texas, as well as underground newspapers that soon numbered more than 200. It also spawned a cabaret tour called the FTA Show (for Free the Army or something more profane), a kind of anti-Bob Hope tour that starred Jane Fonda, whose son, actor Troy Garity, is this film's narrator.

As "Sir! No Sir!" points out, the sheer statistics of soldier resistance are impressive. The Pentagon reported 503,926 "incidents of desertion" between 1966 and 1971, 1,400 active duty soldiers signed a New York Times antiwar ad, and incidents of fragging, the intentional shooting of officers, became noticeable. All of this culminated in the Winter Soldier Investigation hearings and the sight of veterans throwing their medals onto the steps of the Capitol.

One of "Sir! No Sir!'s" most interesting points is how the vital partnership between the peace movement and disgruntled soldiers has fallen from view, replaced in the popular imagination with the notion of peaceniks spitting on Vietnam veterans, something that sociologist Jerry Lembcke, author of "The Spitting Image," says likely never happened.

Despite his longtime interest, filmmaker Zeiger despaired of ever getting this story on film, until the post-Sept. 11 world made the conduct of American soldiers during wartime suddenly a hot topic. We may never recapture the spirit of the 1960s, but watching "Sir! No Sir!" should get us away from the idea that opposing a war means any disrespect to the troops. It wasn't that way in Vietnam, and it's not that way now.


'Sir! No Sir!'

MPAA rating: Unrated

Distributed by Displaced Films and Balcony Releasing. Director David Zeiger. Producers Zeiger, Evangeline Griego, Aaron Zarrow. Screenplay Zeiger. Director of photography May Rigler, Zeiger. Editors Rigler, Lindsay Mofford. Running time: 1 hour, 24 minutes.

In limited release.

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